Out here in La-La land, we occasionally get not your average contract cases. Take, for example, a recent one involving Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Spelling-Goldberg Productions and Columbia Pictures, Inc., along with the Writer's Guild of America and two writers, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, as well as everyone's lawyers. It certainly makes for interesting reading compared with some of the more mundane contract cases. It's just hard to apply them in real life since most of us aren't involved with the entertainment industry.
But for those that are, this case is a wonderful primer. The ruling sets the record straight whether writers, actors, producers or studios own movie rights unless the parties otherwise deal with those rights by contract. Here's the short version: The writers do, thanks to the "Separated Rights" under the the 1970 Writers Guild of America Minimum Basic Agreement.
How the court gets there involves a lot of twists and turns. It starts out with an agreement between Wagner and Spelling-Goldberg Productions, which provided that Wagner was to receive 50% of the profits "for the right to exhibit photoplays of the [Charlie's Angels] series and from the exploitation of all ancillary, music and subsidiary rights in connection therewith." The other 50% belonged to the producers, Spelling-Goldberg Productions.
Fine, you say, then it looks like Wagner should share in the profits from the movies. Not so fast. You overlooked what was being divided up 50/50.
That's where the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement comes in. Under that agreement, when a producer asks a writer to draft a script for a pilot television show, the writer retains the motion picture rights to the series. There's one caveat. The agreement between the writer and the producer can change the terms of the MBA, but in this case, the agreement between Goff/Roberts and Spelling-Goldberg didn't. Otherwise, under the MBA, the producer has the right of first refusal if the writer tries to sell those rights for five years, but after that, the motion picture rights can be sold on the open market to any studio or producer who's willing to pay the writers for them.
In other words, the contract between the actors (Wagner and Woods) and the producers (Spelling-Goldberg) couldn't divide up the motion picture rights because they still belonged to the writers (Goff/Roberts).
Just to fill in one of the blanks necessary to understand what comes next, you may remember that back in 1982, Spelling-Goldberg sold its production company and everything it owned to Columbia Pictures. There's several more blanks in the court's opinion worth your time, but for this short post, that fact will get you by.
Later then, when Columbia Pictures decided to make the Charlie's Angels television series into movies, they went and bought the movie rights from the writers. When Wagner and Woods sued Columbia for a split of the profits from the movies based on their agreement with Spelling-Goldberg Productions, the court reasoned that the movies rights weren't part of the 50/50 split and denied Wagner and Woods any recovery from Columbia.
It all sounds easy now, but the court noted that it took subsequent briefing and two oral arguments by the attorneys to get it right. Even then, Footnote number 1 cryptically states, "If we have erred in our resolution of the issues it was not for counsels' lack of effort to set us straight." That caveat points to what most certainly will be an appeal of this case. We may not have heard the last of who owns the rights to the Charlie's Angels movies.